Supporting the cause of abolition: the role of a wife

Professor John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

judith.spicksley@hull.ac.uk

Itinerant anti-slavery speakers were key to the mobilisation of public opinion in Britain in the early nineteenth century, but they could not have spent so much time on the road without the support of others. Here we introduce excerpts from two letters written by one of those speakers, George Thompson, to his wife during his travels. We thank the Special Collections Manager at John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, for permission to do this.

George Donisthorpe (‘Tim’) Thompson was born in Liverpool on 18 June 1804. Described by Morgan in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as anorator, slavery abolitionist, and political reformer’, he is recognised as being ‘the most effective British anti-slavery lecturer since Thomas Clarkson’ in the run up to the abolition of slavery in 1833. Thompson first came to prominence in 1831, when the then Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, recommended him as a traveling speaker to the London Anti-Slavery Society. It was also in that year that he married Anne Erskine Lorraine (‘Jenny’) Spry, daughter of Richard, a minister in the Methodist Connexion of the Countess of Huntingdon.  They had five surviving children, three girls and two boys, the first of whom, born in 1836, they named William Lloyd Garrison, after the charismatic American abolitionist.

In the first letter, Thompson was writing to his wife from the Lincolnshire market town of Brigg at midnight on Thursday 19 April 1832. He was clearly tired.  It was his fourth lecture that week and there was to be another one, plus five more the following week – two in Barton upon Humber and three in Hull.  But though ‘quite weary and exhausted’ he was keen to let his new wife know that this did not dampen his ardour. ‘Yet have many and many a time risen from the sofa when I could hardly hold my pen, or guide it, and have written a long letter to my Jenny’.  He was therefore disgruntled to find that she had not taken the time to write to him.

Does your Tim with all his faults forget his wife Or his friends? – Do multiplied engagements Cause him to forget his Jenny? – Do over-Whelming bodily exertions cause him to forget his Jenny?  . . . tell me I conjure you why you cannot find time to assure me at the appointed time the while I am caring for you – thinking of you – wishing for you, and labouring ever to prostration for you, you are also caring for and wishing for and thinking upon your Tim.

After complaining about the ‘want of attention on the part of my wife’ he continued with his self-pitying attack:

Why did I leave the Sofa and the security of the kindest friends to go ½ a mile to the post office? – because I expected a letter from my Jenny. Why did I refuse to let a servant go – though entreated gain & again because I expected a letter from my Jenny and it was too grateful a task to be to any one.

He graciously agrees to let her failure to write to him pass, and, after a small pang of conscience, instructs her to send a letter to the local Post Office in Barton. He also reminds her that she carries the full weight of responsibility for his happiness.

I forgive you – must forgive you. perhaps you Did write and the letter mis carried . . . Write me by return to the Post Office Barton – Lincolnshire. Study well your responsibility – Believe O Jenny believe what I have so often said & written, that your conduct – rules my destiny as far as a human being can govern the fate of another – Love me – devote yourself to me – live for me and all is well. (Raymond English Anti-Slavery Collection [REAS]/2/1/22 University of Manchester Library Special Collections, Letters of George Thompson to his wife, April 19, 1832)

The letter finishes with a declaration of love, and a claim that he had intended no censure. Thompson’s modus operandi was well-known in abolitionist circles. An analysis of his correspondence shows that while he was both ‘charming and charismatic, he could also be vain, brittle, and self-absorbed.’ Described as ‘tall, handsome and articulate, with a penchant for biting sarcasm’, he travelled to America with his family in 1834 to preach the abolitionist message, but so fierce was the opposition he aroused, particularly among anti-abolitionist mobs, that he had to be smuggled out of the country in October 1835, for fear of his life. Anne and the children, meanwhile, were left to make their own way home, which, in the circumstances, may well have been a diversionary tactic.

By 1838, the year of the second letter, the Thompson family had settled in Edinburgh, and though his declarations of love had disappeared the sharp tone remains. Writing to Anne from London in February, after seven years of marriage, Thompson’s demands were sartorial rather than epistolary.

I find I need not have a court dress to go to the Queen and therefore, Let me have two new Shirts – my silk stockings, a pair of dress Shoes (perhaps Mr Gregory will make me a pair). Put into a parcel and sent early to Mr Wilson[?], who will carefully pack them, with some Clothes, and send them to me. Oblige me by attending to these things.

He requested that she write to the Post Office in Hull to confirm his demands had been met: ‘Remember, every thing I ask for Is wanted by the 14th!’ (REAS/2/1/43, Letters, February 38, 1838.)

The strains of itinerant lecturing made an early impact on the Thompsons’ marriage. He was often away for considerable periods of time, and she had to deal with the fact that the money he brought in was often barely enough to support the family. William Lloyd Garrison Thompson, who died in September 1851 at the age of 15, was buried in a pauper’s grave in the Dissenters’ section of Brompton Cemetery in London.  Though Thompson appealed to female audiences and helped to establish many women’s abolitionist societies, garnering considerable support for the abolitionist cause, as these extracts reveal, he could be petty and demanding. A self-professed radical, Thompson’s youthful insistence that his wife should ‘devote’ herself to him jars with his professions of equality, which ranged from abolition to free trade, parliamentary reform, disestablishment and religious rights.

George Thompson by Charles Turner, published by and after George Evans, mezzotint, 12 November 1842, NPG D40424 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Summary of author’s recent publications

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

trevor.burnard@hull.ac.uk

Today Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of two of his recent articles on slavery, capitalism and labour

‘Slavery and the New History of Capitalism,’ (with Giorgio Riello), Journal of Global History 15, 2 (2020), 1-20.

In this largely historiographical essay, Giorgio Riello and I look at the relationship between slavery and capitalism, made famous 75 years ago by Eric Williams, by looking in particular at scholarship produced by an American-based historiographical movement that goes by the name `the New History of Capitalism.’ The new history of capitalism (NHC) places a great deal of emphasis on slavery as a crucial world institution. Slavery, it is alleged, arose out of, and underpinned, capitalist development. This article starts by showing the intellectual and scholarly foundations of some of the broad conclusions of the NHC. It proceeds by arguing that capitalist transformation must rely on a global framework of analysis. The article considers three critiques in relation to the NHC. First, the NHC overemphasizes the importance of coercion to economic growth in the eighteenth century. We argue that what has been called ‘war capitalism’ might be better served by an analysis in which the political economy of European states and empires, rather than coercion, is a key factor in the transformation of capitalism at a global scale. Second, in linking slavery to industrialization, the NHC proposes a misleading chronology. Cotton, produced in large quantities in the nineteenth-century United States came too late to cause an Industrial Revolution in Britain which, we argue, developed gradually from the latter half of the seventeenth century and which was well established by the 1790s, when cotton started to arrive from the American South. During early industrialization, sugar, not cotton, was the main plantation crop in the Americas. Third, the NHC is overly concentrated on production and especially on slave plantation economies. It underplays the ‘power of consumption’, where consumers came to purchase increasing amounts of plantation goods, including sugar, rice, indigo, tobacco, cotton and coffee. To see slavery’s role in fostering the preconditions of industrialization and the Great Divergence, we must tell a story about slavery’s place in supporting the expansion of consumption, as well as a story about production.

We conclude that scholars need to consider, in discussing slavery’s contribution to economic growth in eighteenth-century European empires, that we need to return to the global. If we accept the NHC’s totalizing tendency, the Americas, later narrowed to the United States, become the new core in a Wallersteinian narrative. This narrative is to the detriment of explanations that have emphasized a multiplicity of factors in the connections between capitalism and slavery; that have adopted comparative methodologies (between Europe and China, or Europe and India); and that have provided much thought on the economic mechanisms at play, beyond the commonplace view that the violence of thugs always wins. Thugs may win a great deal, but they win only when the structures that maintain their power make their thuggery viable.

‘“I know I have to Work:” The Moral Economy of Labor Among Enslaved Women in Berbice, 1819-1834’

In Trevor Burnard and Sophie White, eds. Hearing Enslaved Voices: African and Indian Slave Testimony in British and French America, 1700-1848 (New York: Routledge, 2020), ch. 9.

I have contributed a chapter to a co-edited book, coming out this northern hemisphere summer with Routledge, edited with Sophie White of Notre Dame, in which I look at an aspect of enslaved women’s lives in the sugar colony of Berbice, later part of Guyana, in north-eastern South America. It looks at slave testimony (as opposed to the better-known nineteenth-century genre of the slave narrative). Most chapters in this book, including mine, look at how enslaved people shaped testimony, often when they were in court and often when they were in great trouble. My court documents are a little different, as they are collected from women who are complaining about their treatment, usually unsatisfactorily, rather than enslaved people being charged with offences.

This chapter will feed into a larger project, utilising a very rich set of documents preserved at the National Archives – the Fiscal and Protector of Slaves records – in which enslaved people often give close to direct testimony about their lives and circumstances. In this project allied to the book I show how the Fiscal’s Records of Berbice, 1819–1834, provide rich evidence, direct from enslaved people, about what mattered to slaves trapped within enslavement and about what remedies they sought for their problems. Enslaved women were able to bring complaints before the Fiscal and the Protector of Slaves. A great majority of their complaints concerned the work they were forced to do as plantation workers. Such work was not gender-neutral. Enslaved women were employed as field workers more than were men and suffered enormous hardship to their health and even more to their ability to look after their families, especially infant children. This chapter shows that enslaved women had clear expectations on what they were owed from their master, based on their understanding of the moral economy between planters and enslaved women where the relationship was viewed by them as reciprocal, if unequal, in which both sides had rights and obligations that needed to be followed.

I concentrate on women’s complaints about work, as this is the area which elicited easily the most complaints about unfairness and mistreatment. Women were insistent that they should be expected to perform a reasonable amount of work defined according to customary rules and adjusted to the strength and competence of individual workers. Moreover, it had to be adjusted so that women’s special expectations relating to child care could be respected. Women complained even when, as was common, their complaints were dismissed. They wanted their voices to be heard. The Fiscals’ returns are a rich body of sources that outline at length the numerous times when women sought to have their concerns aired. Those concerns changed over time and as British officials attempted to circumscribe masters’ actions through such things as the Amelioration Act of 1826.

Women frequently made complaints after that date that they had been illegally whipped. The many post-1826 cases indicate that managers continued to fail to realise that enslaved women in Berbice were involved not just in production but also in reproduction – they were mothers as well as workers. The testimonies embedded in the Fiscal and Protector’s records allow us to recover a little bit of the perspective of the enslaved in the period of amelioration.

Interior of a Cuban sugar mill